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A Portrait of ‘American Carnage’

Gun violence is turning America into a nation of victims and perpetrators.

It is the crack running along the length of our national foundation, and perhaps the single most divisive issue in our thoroughly divided politics. It is a tool used either to convey death or to protect life, depending on whom you ask. Guns first turn Americans against one another, and then give us a way to express our seething rage.

Yet it is the human beings that America’s guns ultimately separate most completely, from their own lives and from those they love.

In America, guns are purported to be a crucial extension of our political freedom. That’s what Republicans and the gun lobby say they’re protecting, against the dire threat of encroachment by would-be tyrants who would happily seize our precious firearms and enslave us. Generally these tyrants come in the form of Democrats trying to enact common sense gun laws.

Thus, any law that make buyings military-grade weapons harder, and which might theoretically prevent children, the mentally ill, and criminals from accessing them, is tantamount to political treason on the American right.

Gun rights activists have been remarkably successful, despite the fact that the 2nd Amendment was written long before the existence of anything remotely even resembling a modern semiautomatic firearm. It’s a law written when guns were single shot muskets, hardly comparable to even the tamest modern revolver, much less an AR-15 rifle or a Glock.

They tell us that even weak gun laws are incompatible with liberty. It has become an article of faith among large swathes of the population that widespread gun ownership is akin to a natural right in America, and thus terrible gun violence is also our birthright.

It is such an integral part of our national identity, this unfettered access to devastating firepower, that one could make the argument that guns are the defining aspect of our nationhood. If so, our national obsession with easily accessible weapons is also the penultimate expression of an intensifying national trauma unfolding in many of our private lives.

It is a violence we are visiting upon ourselves. No ISIS or Al Qaeda terrorist could ever dream of inflicting such momentous and constant suffering on America as our enduring addiction to firearms does.

It is a national suicide with no end in sight.

Yet the private trauma is rarely explored in American culture. Many of us are tormented by visions of being killed in a random incident of road rage or of being murdered in a mass shooting, and when we avoid this fate we pray that it remains so. We anxiously worry for our family members every single time they leave the house for the grocery store or the movies or school.

This is the bitter reality of our precious American freedom; it comes at the expense of a great many of our very lives.

We are filled with a trembling and quite justified fear of abruptly meeting a violent death. It’s one of the largely unacknowledged reasons cops kill citizens so incredibly often in America; they are themselves terrified they will be shot, with very good reason.

There are guns literally everywhere, seen and unseen alike.

They tell us this is exactly how it should be, that the 2nd Amendment is the only way we can have our democracy. This is despite the fact that those saying these things reside in a political party that has turned decisively away from democracy, and is now the home of a blossoming authoritarianism in America.

However, it seems our political leaders are too paralyzed to act, even with a Democratic majority in congress and control of the presidency. Despite the endless horror, nothing changes. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Each new atrocity is met with a new level of apathy and even more widespread disgust.

Yet what happens to those of us who are left behind after the bullet casings and the dead bodies are identified and collected? Those of us who haven’t experienced such horror can never truly know, and we pray we never find out.


Yet the new film ‘Mass’ takes us into the dark heart of our country’s ongoing misfortune, into the terrible loss that exists amidst our national tragedy, like a lurking poltergeist in American consciousness. It is an exploration of those left behind after yet another school shooting, something that happens so frequently in America we almost forget to register how truly horrific they are.

‘Mass’ portrays a discussion between the parents of a killer and the parents of his victim. It is like our American conversation: impossible. Yet it’s a debate that must be had.

This film is an assured debut from director Fran Kranz, who sets this quietly haunting testament about America’s smoldering grief in a little Episcopalian church in what might be a small town in Colombine, Colorado or anywhere in America. It begins with a sweet but clueless Church assistant, who readies the room for the parents. She is simply out of her depth amid the gravity of the encounter at hand.

Throughout the film, the director seems to go out of his way to emphasize the uselessness of religion, at least insofar as it might pull us out of this particular pit. The point seems clear enough. The Church will not deliver us from this particular evil. Increasingly, the devout abet it within the Republican Party.

“Thoughts and prayers” accomplish only apathy. This seems to be what this film is saying on that point, quite clearly. It’s something we’ve come to expect in our public discourse, and this rebuttal of prayers as answers is something akin to revelation.

The film leads us to that place America tries to avoid, into the anguished aftermath of our habitual gun violence.

We’re led into a spacious room in the back of a Church, yet nothing can diminish the feeling of constriction and claustrophobia. The parents of the slain child hesitate in their idling car, filled with dread at meeting their counterparts.

Finally everyone is seated, and the family lawyer who has been acting as their meeting guide vanishes. We don’t yet know whose son killed whom.

The discussion begins with an offering of flowers from one mother to another, and we begin to understand.

The film is a beautifully acted meditation on a uniquely American kind of loss, and on the inexplicable nature of a terrible act of premeditated violence, both against and from someone we love. At the end of their conversation the viewer empathizes with both sets of parents deeply.

This result was not assured, as there is always ample blame to go around after a school shooting, especially toward the parents. Yet this movie seems to suggest that blame lay elsewhere, and quite possibly with ourselves.

The conversation touches on the outline of our national debate. After the flowers comes the politics, which predictably offers nothing but frustration. As the two fathers debate, the mother of the slain boy steps in, saying “I didn’t come here to talk about fucking politics.” Indeed.

Instead, the parents explore the contours of their shared grief. The parents of the perpetrator and the parents of the innocent victim come to know each other’s pain well. It is a torment they find they share.

At first, the parents of the slain child try to blame the parents of the school shooter, as they search for answers. Yet they come to understand that his parents were presented with an impossible situation, that their child was troubled and beyond their reach, and that they could not have imagined he would do what he did.

Ultimately, there is forgiveness, if not clarity. It is a kind of tortured redemption, one our country still cannot seem to fathom.

With the recent arrest of the parents of Ethan Crumbley, a fifteen year old in Michigan who murdered four of his classmates and wounded seven others, this is a critical moment for the question of legal culpability in a school shooting. Who is responsible?

Crumbley’s parents purchased his semiautomatic pistol knowing he was disturbed, and they left him in school after being called to a meeting in which school officials presented them with a drawing depicting a gun and violence.

Ethan Crumbley’s drawing the day of the shooting

His parents didn’t seem to care. He had the gun they’d purchased for him in his backpack at that very moment. He was crying out for help in vain, because no one listened. They’re both in jail facing involuntary manslaughter charges.

Yet this is a uniquely egregious case. Most parents of school shooters are simply not as culpable. There are generally several warning signs, but nothing concrete like in this case. Thus, resolving the Crumbley case doesn’t imply we’ll solve our national dilemma. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

‘Mass’ seems to suggest that any parent could have a child who commits an atrocity in America. Indeed, that is one of the central messages of this film.

In the United States, the line separating victims and perpetrators is very thin. The film asks its viewers to ponder this question, and it refrains from providing a ready answer.

Nonetheless, like spent shells at a crime scene, the evidence is right in front of all of our eyes.

It’s the guns.

As America struggles with its national identity and as our politics becomes uglier and more violent, the issue of guns and gun violence seems unlikely to be resolved. A parade of horrific mass shootings of every terrifying variety has already walked urgently by us begging for our attention, and yet we’ve done nothing.

Other developed countries look at us with a mixture of pity and disbelief. How do you diagnose a country that can’t protect its own children in school?

This seems to be the central question of our time: why can we not stop killing one another? Unfortunately, we still don’t have a satisfactory answer, even if we know the approximate cause.

What we have is bloodshed and victims, and we will have more of both until we tighten the lax gun laws in this country. That seems to be the only thing we can know for sure, and what ‘Mass’ seems to be trying to convey.

The question is this: will America understand? I’m not sure it will.


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